Sunday, June 7, 2009

God, Life, and Everything - "Civility"

I write a biweekly column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take.  Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Remember my friends the Goodpeoples?  Marge, Harry, their twelve-year-old son Pete, and their six-year-old daughter Rosetta?  Like I said before, they’re good people, always trying to do the right thing.

Which is why I was distressed when Harry called me the other day to complain about the big city newspaper he’d been reading.  

“I can’t believe some people!” he fussed.  “Outrageous behavior.  I couldn’t let Pete read along with me anymore.”

The first thing I did was congratulate Harry on still reading a newspaper.  “With all the electronic news, you miss the feel for good old paper.  I can just see you sitting side by side folding the paper, maybe doing the crossword.  So, did somebody write something offensive in the letters to the editor?”

There was an awkward silence.  “Um, we were reading the online version, and Pete was standing behind me.”


“And it wasn’t the letters to the editor.  It was the comments.”


“Yeah, you know.  There’s an article, and below it people can write their comments.  Only they can write more than one, and they can respond to other commenters.”

“Like a conversation?”

“Like a reality show!  There’s name calling, back stabbing, tantrums, innuendo, misinformation, name it.”

“What’s the point of that?”  There was another awkward pause.  

“Well, it’s kind of cool.”  I waited for more, and he obliged.  “I mean, at its best, you get a profitable exchange of ideas.  With letters to the editor, you write it, and that’s it.  No response, and you can’t even see it for days.  Plus, you have to put your name down for all to see.  With commenting, you’re anonymous.”

“So with comments, you can say anything you want with no consequences?”


That was a lot to think about.  An anonymous conversation -- or shouting match -- with no consequences.  I had to ask myself, would I be uncivil?  

In fact, why should we be civil?  Why not just do whatever we want, say whatever we want?

I mean, if some jerk is wrong, shouldn’t I tell him how wrong he is -- and maybe let him know what a pea-brain he is for thinking something so stupid in the first place?  I bet it would feel good.  Really rip them up, tear them down to size.

Don’t agree with me about abortion?  Taxes?  Homeland Security?  Homosexuality?  Then you’re a moron!

Hmmm.  Sounds like a TV pundit or a political ad, where civility vanishes into vitriol.

I got online and read some of these comments.  There’s interesting, even enlightening conversation out there, but there’s also a lot of verbal abuse.  How would Jesus comment?  

Of course, Jesus got hacked off occasionally, but he always left the door open for more conversation and reconciliation.  When someone abused him, he never lashed out in response.  And of course, everything he said was public and to the person’s face.

Perhaps there’s the lesson.  Civility exists so we can live together as a community.  We are civil to each other face-to-face because life works better that way.  Without it, we’d live in chaos. 

I called Harry.  “Here’s my advice.  When you read those comments -- especially if you’re reading with Pete -- let abusive comments go.  Don’t respond.  And when you comment, do so as if you were standing face-to-face with the person.  Do so as if it were your neighbor -- a neighbor you may not agree with, but with whom you want to get along.  After all, in the end, we’re all neighbors.”